The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, June 02, 2013


Tangled in Papua’s political thickets                                             

Fifty years ago this month (May) Indonesia took over administration of what is now known as West Papua.  Two years later the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM – Free Papua Movement) started.

Following the fall of President Soeharto in 1998 some thought the time ripe to seek independence.  But how to do it?  In the remote province few knew more than the meaning of merdeka  (ironically gained from studying Indonesian history), the urge to demonstrate and a symbol.

On Biak Island off the north coast there was political will - but no flag.  Activist Filep Karma had seen the Morning Star but couldn’t remember details.

Employing a seamstress would have attracted the police so Karma sprayed blue and red spray paint on a piece of white cloth.  This was raised over a water tank at the harbor.  A prayer meeting was held.  It was a makeshift, amateurish, largely spontaneous and certainly naïve protest.

The unarmed demonstrators brandished Bibles and sang hymns.  That didn’t stop the military opening fire, apparently after some soldiers had been assaulted.

Karma was shot but survived.  He alleged 29 were killed.  Witnesses claim bodies were dumped at sea.  The Army said just one person died, and the washed up corpses victims of a giant wave far away.

Also in Biak was American doctoral student Eben Kirksey who heard (but didn’t see) the shootings.  Had he been able to film the event – as journalists did in 1991 at Dili’s Santa Cruz massacre – the world might have paid more attention.

East Timor is now an independent nation, in part because of the outrage following the Dili killings. But West Papua remains firmly Indonesian with the support of Western governments.  With revolutions in Africa and the Middle East, the problems of the region get little international attention.

In Dr Kirksey’s Freedom in Entangled Worlds we get a book with enough insights to fill in the gaps – but not an objective account. 

The Indonesian government’s refusal to let in foreign journalists means that most reports come from partisan sources – including the military.  As in Syria this leaves us wondering who to believe.

The author first encountered Papua in the 1990s when travelling from the US to Jakarta as an exchange student.

During the night refuel the teenager got a whiff of the exotic and mysterious, penis gourds and grass skirts, oppressive heat and the scent of kretek (clove) cigarettes,  

Later he returned as an adult planning a thesis on the independence movement and globalisation.  Instead he was “drawn into a struggle for freedom … (becoming) an advocate who accompanied West Papuan activists in political meetings.” In 2005 he worked in Washington as a human rights advocate.   Hardly the language and position of an even-handed academic.

Nonetheless Dr Kirksey’s extensive research has been accepted and he’s now a lecturer at a Sydney University where he teaches ‘environmental humanities’. He’s also become a media commentator on West Papua.

This book proves not all dissertations translate well into mainstream non-fiction.  There are plenty of fascinating anecdotes illustrating the cultural complexities and the author’s undercover work, but these have been forced into theoretical moulds and decorated with jargon. 

So we get mixtures of Melanesian myths and magic laced with half understood (or misunderstood) stories from the West, guaranteed to engross all – then given equally weird explanations.

To try and make sense of it all he uses extended metaphors drawn from the natural surroundings – jungle roots.

West Papua is quivering with spies.  It’s almost impossible to do anything or meet anyone without being observed and reported to Intelligence, so activists and Dr Kirksey have taken great risks to garner information. 

The man is no dilettante.  He spent three months with one tribe, speaks Indonesian and a Creole called Logat Papua and interviewed 400 people. Impressive.  So is his lack of arrogance.  His achievement is ‘not a monograph with pretensions to completeness (but) a story of compromises situated within multiple entangled worlds’.

Tangled indeed. The layers over traditional beliefs have included Dutch colonialism, the Second World War, fundamentalist Christianity, academic analysis, capitalism, massive mineral exploitation and military oppression.

The missionaries introduced hopes of the Messiah’s return.  The Allied armies’ cargo brought proof of the riches beyond the mountains that could appear out of the sky given the right mantra.

Instead, ironically on Christmas Day 1971 Freeport arrived to dig a giant hole and take away the province’s riches.  What were the poorly educated and uninformed (or misinformed) Papuans to make of it all?

That so many have mastered the complexities of international business and politics, and aroused global concerns about exploitation and alleged human rights abuses is a tribute to their abilities, tenacity and courage.

There are signs of hope.  President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is reported to be pushing for a ‘development through compassion’ solution before he leaves office next year. 

One way would be to listen the Papuans’ grievances, ranging from dispossession, through torture and murder, enough of their dreadful plight articulated in this book to warrant action that doesn’t involve violence.

The danger is that Dr Kirksey’s book will be considered antagonistic by the military, restricting a peaceful and just settlement of this suppurating wound infecting Indonesia’s relationship with the rest of the world – and particularly Australia.

Freedom in Entangled Worlds: West Papua and the architecture of global power.
Eben Kirksey
Duke University Press 2012
322 pages

(First published in The Sunday Post, 2 June 2013)

No comments: